4-9 The Bataan Death March
Today we honor the 1,800 New Mexicans who endured the Bataan Death March that began April 9, 1942 on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
The weeklong, 65-mile march, in tropical heat, without food, water, or rest resulted in the deaths of some 11,000 Americans and Filipinos.
Ceremonies will be held throughout the state today and tomorrow. The annual Bataan Memorial Death March was held Sunday March 21 at White Sands Missile Range. The 26.2-mile event attracted 5,700 participants this year.
On Friday, prior to the Sunday event, Alamogordo kicked off a Speaker Series with Death March survivors and New Mexico authors of books about Bataan.
Bataan is dear to the hearts of many New Mexicans. National Guard units from throughout the state were sent to help defend the Philippines from Japan's advance aimed at taking control of the Pacific all the way to Australia.
Unfortunately the U.S. military wasn't able to mobilize in time to stop Japan's rapid march down the Pacific. Supplies and reinforcements promised to Gen. Douglass Mac Arthur never arrived. American troops were left to fight with antiquated World War I weapons, ammunition and supplies.
New Mexico's troops made up the 200th Coast Artillery. During the four months they held off the Japanese advance, they downed 86 enemy aircraft with equipment that constantly fell apart.
Fortunately nearly all these men were from rural areas of New Mexico They had grown up figuring out how to repair machines and anything else that broke down.
They endured lack of supplies, malnutrition, malaria and starvation to foil the Japanese timetable for reaching Australia before we and our allies could complete our mobilization effort.
The Japanese effort finally was stopped just short of Australia at New Guinea and Guadalcanal but not before the Philippines were overrun.
In the final months of their holdout, the 200th, which was undermanned as a regiment, was split in two and the 515th Coast Artillery regiment was created to help defend Manila. The 200th remained on the Bataan Peninsula.
As the Japanese continued their advance, all American troops were consolidated onto the Bataan peninsula, with the New Mexico Guard forming the line of defense through which they passed.
The squeeze was on as Japanese troops pushed deeper into the peninsula. Eventually U.S. commanders saw that no resources were left to continue the fight and no reinforcements would arrive. On April 9, 1942 the troops were surrendered. The men of the New Mexico Guard let their displeasure with the decision be known. They wanted to fight to the death.
For those who survived the march, the prison camps were another tortuous ordeal. That wasn't the end, however as things went from bad to worse. Prisoner "hell ships" then took the captives to Japan where they worked as forced labor in factories and mines owned by companies such as Mitsubishi and Kawasaki.
The New Mexico National Guard had a proud history in World War II. It was the first to fire on the December 8, 1941 Japanese attack. It was named the best anti-aircraft regiment in the U.S. Army. And it lost more men per capita than any other state in World War II.
In 2008, the New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Preservation League initiated an effort to recognize Bataan veterans with a Congressional Gold Medal. The league is dedicated to correcting omissions of valor and honor in historical records, which have seemed to overlook the role of Hispanics in American history. The 200th and 515th Coast Artillery regiments were largely composed of Hispanic soldiers.
The league was successful in getting then-Rep. Tom Udall introduced the legislation to award a Gold Medal to Bataan veterans. The bill received much support from many organizations but its momentum was stalled when other veterans groups said they deserved Congressional Gold Medals for the battles they fought.